Shock diagnosis: ‘Oh my God, we’ve got a problem’

Back in 2018 Narelle Kelly was on the cusp of running one of the most exciting events of her career when she felt an unusual pain in her breasts.

"It was crazy. We were about to deliver the Commonwealth Games and my sport (basketball) was over three cities - Cairns, Townsville and the Gold Coast," she said.

"I was so busy. I was lucky if I was home four hours a day."

But with a soreness that wouldn't go away the former Basketball Queensland Sport Manager scheduled an appointment for a mammogram and was soon after told she had "fatty tissue" in her breasts and no further investigation was needed.

Announcing GC2018 Basketball coming to Townsville. Photo: Supplied.
Announcing GC2018 Basketball coming to Townsville. Photo: Supplied.

Like many women Narelle has spoken to since, a fatty tissue diagnosis is not unusual.

What wasn't usual was the niggling feeling that "it didn't seem right".

"At the time I did question it and they basically said you could be one of those unusual cases, fatty breast tissue can be a benign cyst or you could be one of those people who are just tender."

She says she was told the pain and tenderness could also just be "depending on where you are in your cycle".

"They said the scans have come back okay and you'll be fine."

But she wasn't.

Sport Manager Narelle & Operations Manager Lisa after finishing set up in Townsville for #GC2018. Photo: Supplied.
Sport Manager Narelle & Operations Manager Lisa after finishing set up in Townsville for #GC2018. Photo: Supplied.

When the Commonwealth Games were over, the 45-year-old's health declined rapidly.

"I just wasn't right," she said.

"I didn't look great. I didn't feel great."

"People were actually asking me if I had cancer."

Floored by how quickly her health had deteriorated, she returned to her GP and began a "battery of other tests. Was it just exhaustion? Was it chronic fatigue? An auto immune disease?"

"Some tests came up with that I had some markers but follow up tests came back fine."

Four months lapsed and she still had no answers yet by this time the lump in her right breast had grown and the pain was becoming unbearable.

"I was feeling exhausted and defeated because I couldn't get to the bottom of why I wasn't right," she said.

"I've always been a very busy person, a busy life, busy at home but I was so exhausted that I would go to work and come home get in to bed and stay there.

"I felt debilitated. I even questioned my mental health. I wondered am I having a break down. I had never been like this before."

Despite her declining health Narelle, who is also her chronically ill husband's carer and has a 17-year-old daughter, continued going to work until a critical change in her husband's health meant she had to leave her beloved job with Basketball Queensland to care for him full-time.

By this time, with almost a year passing since she first raised questions about her breasts, the lump had grown to the size of a tennis ball.



An ultrasound of Narelle’s right breast showing the mass. Image: supplied
An ultrasound of Narelle’s right breast showing the mass. Image: supplied

"My breast was distorted. I liken it to when an implant adheres to a breast and it becomes deformed. That was what my (right) breast was like. It was hard as a rock and it was painful."

With her husband in hospital, Narelle decided she would make another attempt to find out what was wrong with her.

"I could just see it getting bigger and bigger and I knew it wasn't right," she said.

"It wasn't going away."

And neither was the pain. Not until she had pain relief recently in hospital, did she realise just how much pain she had been in.

"I was so accustomed to it," she said.

"It was my new normal."

Conscious that she needed to be well to look after her husband, Narelle says she decided to pay upfront for tests at a private hospital.

She had a referral for an ultrasound which in the end couldn't be done because the size of the mass in her right breast and two smaller lumps in the left made the scan too difficult.

She was, instead, sent back to her GP to get a referral for a mammogram but had to wait a further three weeks to get back in for the test.

In the end the diagnosis came back the same - fatty tissue with "some evidence of ductal cysts off my milk ducts that appeared to be inactive. They said no further action needed."

In her GP's office Narelle made a shocking decision.

"I said I am in so much pain. I can't live my life like this. If I have fatty breast tissue and this is what it feels like I'd rather get rid of it," she said.

"I asked for a referral to a surgeon to discuss my options."

I'd rather have it (my breasts) removed and get an implant."

Team Basketball #GC2018 Lisa, Amanda, Narelle & Dean. Photo: Supplied
Team Basketball #GC2018 Lisa, Amanda, Narelle & Dean. Photo: Supplied

Narelle was referred to surgeon Dr Lily Vrtik but it would be three months more before she was able to see the woman she credits with saving her life.

More than a year since she first felt the lump and began experiencing pain she found herself in Dr Vrtik's rooms preparing to have her breasts removed.

"She sat me down and I explained my issue and she said 'I think you are in the wrong place. We probably shouldn't waste our time', but I said 'would you mind just taking a look anyway?'.

"So she did. She took one look at me and said 'Oh my God. We've got a problem'," Narelle said.

"She said 'you have an issue here'. She said 'how has this gotten to where you are?

This doesn't look right or feel right and this is not the way fatty breast tissue should look or feel and it shouldn't do this to your breast. We need to find someone straight away - tomorrow'."

That was barely a month ago.

Now in the care of RBWH under Professor Owe Ung, she is finally getting the treatment she needs.

"I was in such shock," she said.

"But I also felt vindicated at the same time because I had been on this long journey and I knew something wasn't right and thank God someone agreed with me.

"I think that was the first day I actually cried but I was frustrated I'd waited three months to see the beautiful surgeon and that all this time had passed. I didn't have a full diagnosis and so I was thinking 'oh God' it could be too late".

Following a bevy of tests, Narelle was diagnosed with an aggressive stage two breast cancer.

"I remember he said 'stage two is usually a lady with a mass the size of a pea', whereas I am dealing with a whole breast on one side (right) and golf balls on the left and that is unusual we don't ever usually get to this point," she said.

"That is the second time I broke down because it was the frustration of how did I get here."

Now she wants her journey to be a lesson for others.

"Ask for a biopsy. Even if they say it's unnecessary," she said.

"If it does get bigger or it's still playing on your mind, my story, will prove if nothing else don't accept 'it's just fatty breast tissue' and 'sorry you just have lumpy breasts'."

"Keep going."

“Team Narelle” have set up a GoFund Me page to help support Narelle and her family. Photo: supplied.
“Team Narelle” have set up a GoFund Me page to help support Narelle and her family. Photo: supplied.

Narelle's friends have started a GoFund Me page to help support her during her treatment with many of those who have already donated writing messages of love and support for a woman who "has made an invaluable commitment to the development of stats and scoretable across the nation" in basketball and "always given so much to everyone in the basketball community - it's now our time to help you and your family".